Background: Walking and cycling to school provide a convenient opportunity to incorporate physical activity into an adolescent's daily routine. School proximity to residential homes has been identified as an important determinant of active commuting among children. The purpose of this study is to identify if distance is a barrier to active commuting among adolescents, and if there is a criterion distance above which adolescents choose not to walk or cycle.
Methods: Data was collected in 2003-05 from a cross-sectional cohort of 15-17 yr old adolescents in 61 post primary schools in Ireland. Participants self-reported distance, mode of transport to school and barriers to active commuting. Trained researchers took physical measurements of height and weight. The relation between mode of transport, gender and population density was examined. Distance was entered into a bivariate logistic regression model to predict mode choice, controlling for gender, population density socio-economic status and school clusters.
Results: Of the 4013 adolescents who participated (48.1% female, mean age 16.02 +/- 0.661), one third walked or cycled to school. A higher proportion of males than females commuted actively (41.0 vs. 33.8%, chi2 (1) = 22.21, p < 0.001, r = -0.074). Adolescents living in more densely populated areas had greater odds of active commuting than those in the most sparsely populated areas (chi2 (df = 3) = 839.64, p < 0.001). In each density category, active commuters travelled shorter distances to school. After controlling for gender and population density, a 1-mile increase in distance decreased the odds of active commuting by 71% (chi2 (df = 1) = 2591.86, p < 0.001). The majority of walkers lived within 1.5 miles and cyclists within 2.5 miles. Over 90% of adolescents who perceived distance as a barrier to active commuting lived further than 2.5 miles from school.
Conclusion: Distance is an important perceived barrier to active commuting and a predictor of mode choice among adolescents. Distances within 2.5 miles are achievable for adolescent walkers and cyclists. Alternative strategies for increasing physical activity are required for individuals living outside of this criterion.